Monday, October 30, 2017

The Comsat Industry "Abides"

          By Brian Orlotti

Leading satellite operator SES S.A. has issued an ultimatum of sorts to traditional satellite manufacturers that the company intends to radically change how it procures, launches and operates geosynchronous communications satellites.

Originally, it was the dude that "abides." As outlined in the undated Dictonarykiwi post, "“The Dude abides” — what does “abide” mean in that context?," the term “abide” is a "complex, archaic word" that means variously “lives in,” “goes in accord with,” and “co-exists in harmony with.” In the context of the the 1998 Cohen brothers crime/ slacker comedy film "The Big Lebowski", it "occurs because the narrator and the main character/characters, who have been extravagantly shown to be archaic, obsolete, rambling and pointlessly verbose, were struggling to describe a state of personal acceptance of fate." To see more of The Big Lebowski and contemplate the similarities between the characters in the movie and the state of the current satellite industry, simply click on the photo above. Photo c/o You Tube

As outlined in the October 26th, 2017 Space Intel Report post, "SES tells satellite builders to prepare for a total rethink of their business," this major shift in the industry will focus on smaller, cheaper and quicker-to-deploy satellites able to compete with upcoming next-gen systems from major new players.

According to the post, SES CTO Martin Halliwell outlined the criteria it will seek in this new generation of satellites:
  • Smaller weight than current-gen commsats i.e. 2000kg rather than the current +4000kg
  • A shift to all electric propulsion
  • The discarding of the current analog/digital hybrid processing architectures in favour of purely digital systems
  • Systems that can reallocate bandwidth on the fly to different customers based on their needs at a given time (similar to the concept of quality of service (QoS) in terrestrial networks)
  • A greater emphasis on standardization to ensure reliability
  • Reducing the entire satellite procurement cycle (from initial order to working satellite in orbit) down to 18 months from the current average of four years
  • Satellite working lifetimes of seven to eight years rather than up to 18 years, enabling lower costs and faster upgrade cycles
  • Designs enabling three or four satellites to be launched at a time so as to spread out launch and unit cost
The primary drivers for these changes include lower launch costs enabled reusable rockets such as the SpaceX Falcon-9, as well as upcoming next-gen satellite constellations from SpaceX, OneWeb, O3b Networks and Leosat.

In fact, influenced by the success of O3b Networks’ broadband satellite constellation in medium earth orbit, SES invested early in the company and then purchased it in May 2016 (renaming it SES Networks).

SES’ emphasis on COTS components, standardization and all-digital systems will ensure that future constellations will be adaptable, able to provide a variety of services to multiple markets while in orbit.

The traditional satellite industry will face formidable competition from these new players, particularly from SpaceX. Dubbing its constellation ‘StarLink,’  SpaceX is promising gigabit-speed internet access at latencies of around 25ms.

These low latencies (comparable to terrestrial broadband links) will be enabled through the use of low Earth orbit (LEO). SpaceX is currently testing its satellites and plans to launch a prototype before year’s end. SpaceX intends to begin launching Starlink in 2019, reaching its full capacity of 4,425 satelites in 2024.

Drawing on their considerable experience and resources, it’s clear that the traditional satellite industry has no intention of sitting still in the face of the coming sea change. This is ultimately a good thing. Greater competition will enable better service at better prices while pushing the cutting edge of innovation.

Here’s to greater things ahead.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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